I was reading back through a letter I wrote to all of you. The letter was sent not long after our June quarterly congregation meeting in June of 2014. I thought I might re-send it, first, because what it says is along the lines of what I was going to say in this opening monologue; and two, because I heard a news item this morning on the way into the office about what the newscaster was calling “the happiness of time efficiency.” He said that happier people are those who can take a big job and somehow reduce the time it takes to accomplish that job so that other jobs can be accomplished. I don’t know if that makes sense, but what he said in addition is that often times people will spin their wheels re-creating something when much of what needs done is already in place.
Most of you know I don’t prefer to recycle, but having read through the letter, the words resonated with a freshness that I thought we could reconsider via this eNewsletter. Why? Because the words were important then and they’re important now. Sourced from God’s Word, they still meet each and every one of us in real ways right here and right now—especially since we just transferred $10,000 from our designated funds to cover payroll. But even with that happening, don’t be afraid. God is at work. And with that, keep reading…
At our annual “Getting Organized” meeting that took place back in January of this year, I presented the results of an informal survey I conducted. Essentially, I called the local Methodist, Baptist, ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America), and two non-denominational churches and asked several questions, one of which was: “What is the process for becoming a member of your congregation?” Here’s what I discovered.
The two non-denominational churches I contacted are very similar to one another. Both encourage prospective members to choose and join one of several small groups they call “Life Groups”. These groups meet once a week for six weeks and are tailored to be “relevant” to the participants’ needs (newly divorced, alcoholics, even sports fans). Again, prospective members are encouraged to join one of these groups, but it is not a requirement for membership. They can join whenever they want.
Both the Methodist and ELCA churches offer a single, three-hour class. The class takes place as needed on a Saturday. Church leaders are present to meet the prospective members and to talk about the church’s structure and membership expectations. Church doctrine is not discussed, and membership is granted at the conclusion of the session if the participant desires.
The Baptist church does not offer a class. It expects prospective members to learn as they go. A person can join when they decide they are ready.
So, why am I sharing all of this? Because whenever a church starts to talk about money, the topic of attendance and attracting new members never seems to be too far behind.
At our recent quarterly congregation meeting in June, during the discussion surrounding our annual budget proposal, I found myself compelled to urge all in attendance to keep a few things in the proper perspective when it comes to money and membership.
First, I asked folks to consider how the Bible defines healthy stewardship. I offered some basics to show that we are indeed aligned with and practicing these truths. Do we have our struggles? Yes. Are they big? In my opinion, it depends on who you talk to. But big or small, should we worry that we are doing things in an “unhealthy” way as a congregation? Well, according to the Scriptures, no.
Second, I reminded folks that we cannot necessarily factor “faith” into the financial predictions necessary for preparing a budget. What we can do is identify those things that God allows to stand before us as demanding of our trust in Him – the challenges – or as Luther called them, “tentatio.” I pointed out that “tentatio” is a necessary part of growing as Christians. God uses it to test and refine His people. It isn’t necessarily designed to be pleasant, but God knows best and so He allows the ones He loves to be challenged in order to strengthen hope in Him (Romans 5:1-5). In other words, “tentatio” is a good thing!
Next, I asked folks to consider how the Bible says real Christians are actually made. It is by the power of the Holy Spirit through the Word of the Gospel, both verbal and visible – Word and Sacrament. I urged folks to consider that if they, as individual Christians, are not reaching out to folks around them with the Gospel, we should not expect our pews to fill up too rapidly. I affirmed that, yes, it is true that as the pastor I am called by Christ to this place to preach and teach the Gospel and to administer the Sacraments according to Christ’s mandate, but I’m not the only one around here who is called to live and to speak the hope that lives within him to family, friends, or neighbors while I’m at Walmart, or the car repair shop, or Leo’s Coney Island in Hartland. And while I know for sure that there are others doing this, nevertheless, if there are only a few of us, then…well… I think you get the point.
Finally, I urged that we need to understand that our church is vastly different from the others in the area, which brings me back around to where this letter started. Once our visitors have reached a point where they are willing to invest the time and energy to become a member here at Our Savior, it takes more than a few hours on a Saturday. A typical new member class takes about fifteen to twenty weeks to complete…and it’s not shallow. Not only do folks learn the Biblical theology behind the Lord’s Supper, Baptism, Christian faith and life, but they learn to discern objective truth by way of the Word of God. For example, they learn the difference between things like “norma normata” and “norma normans”, “exegesis” versus “eisegesis”. It takes a while to do this. But why is it this way? Because Our Savior Evangelical Lutheran Church takes very seriously our Lord’s mandate for making Christians. God has made it clear that the people who gather in fellowship together here must know what is taught, believed, and confessed at this altar (1 Corinthians 10:14-22).
Now, having read all of this, take a moment and think about what it is that may be preventing you from consciously reaching out and inviting someone you know to church with you. What is stopping you from helping to fill the new member class? Is it fear? Is it doubt? Maybe you don’t think you’ll say the right words? Whatever it is, I’ll bet the following bits of advice will help. The first is a practical truth I find myself employing often. The second is a Biblical truth for all Christians.
1) Climb the ladder to the high dive and jump! When I was a kid, there was a public pool near my home. It was the rule that once you climbed the ladder to the high dive, the lifeguard would not let you climb back down. The only way down was to jump into the water. One day, I didn’t necessarily have the courage to do it, but somehow I forced myself to climb knowing full well that once I was up there it was out of my control. Think about someone you want to share the Gospel with and then climb the ladder to the high dive. Pick up the phone and dial the number for that person. Let it ring. Since most folks have caller ID, if you chicken out, you will have already passed the point of no return and they will wonder why you called…and surely you don’t want to lie. Write a letter, put it into an envelope and put a stamp on it and then drop it in the mailbox at the post office. You can’t get it out now. You’re stuck. Type up an email and hit “send” before your fear causes you to reconsider. You can’t get that email back. It’s now sitting in the inbox of someone you would love to see beside you in holy worship. Climb the ladder to the high dive because then you’ll have to jump into the water! And if you are like me, after a few jumps, it wasn’t so scary anymore.
2) Rest assured that it’s not your job to convert someone. It is the job of the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 2:8-9, 1 Corinthians 12:3, Romans 1:16, John 1:12-13, John 3:5-8). There really is nothing to fear (Psalm 27:1). Be faithful (Matthew 25:23). Be the Christian God has made you to be and simply give the message (Matthew 5:13-16, Luke 14:23). God has promised to work through that message to accomplish His purposes (Philippians 2:13). The results are not in your hands. If after you give the message, you find yourself in a discussion that you don’t think you can handle, just be honest. Tell the person you don’t know the answers to his questions. Offer to find out more. Or better yet, let me try! Pass along my phone number and email address. Let’s work together to make the introduction! And if after all of this you feel like nothing appears to be taking root, don’t consider yourself a failure. Remember, Christ Himself was often rejected, even by His own family (John 6:41-71). Instead, keep that person in prayer and be ready. You have given a powerful Gospel. It can change a heart and mind at any moment. Just look at Nicodemus, a devout Pharisee. He received the Gospel (John 3) and was later found defending Jesus before his fellow Pharisees (John 6)—even to the point of being ridiculed—and then at the tomb as a believer preparing the Lord’s body for burial at the conclusion of John’s Gospel account. While you are praying for the Gospel to take root, set your sights on someone else!
While we do have many seats in the Lord’s house that are filled, we also have quite a few that are empty. And while I can understand why people gravitate toward thinking that more members just naturally means more offerings, you really need to keep that as far from your heart and mind as possible. That is not the right connection to make. We’re not after money. Large structures, big budgets, plentiful staffing, many and various programs and activities does not necessarily mean a church is successful. We are called to be faithful – faithful Christians reaching out to the world around us with the sole purpose of introducing others to the One who gave His life for their rescue. While this is happening, those same Christians trust that God is faithful and will provide all that is necessary for this body and life!
If you are already actively reaching out to others, great! Keep at it. Your labor is not in vain (1 Corinthians 15:58). If not, pray that God would grant you the courage to start! If you need help, call me. I am your servant. Let’s work at it together.